The history of backgammon in two parts
Part 1: Origins
Backgammon is one of the oldest games in existence alongside Go and Chess. It is probably about 5,000 years old and may well have originated in what today is Iraq – previously Mesopotamia. Recent evidence supporting this was found when these very early dice (made of human bones) were discovered in the area:
The board with its twenty-four points and thirty checkers (or pieces or men) has been around for a long time but the game has not always been called backgammon. Other games which used the same board were Senet and Mancala. The Romans were the first to make it truly popular with their version called “Duodecum Scripta et Tabulae” or “Tables” for short.
Frescoes in many a Roman villa depict the game in progress (the players were not always completely clothed)! Here is an example (clothed version) from Pompeii:
The Emperor Claudius was a keen player – he had a special board built on the back of his chariot to relieve the tedium of long journeys. Emperor Nero was a prodigious gambler. He played for today’s equivalent of $10,000 a game. History does not record what happened to his opponents if they lost!
For many years there were different rules depending upon one’s level in society – true of many pastimes.. Whilst the officers wagered large stakes it became so popular during the Crusades that soldiers below a certain rank were barred from playing.
The history of any game can be tracked by looking for references in both art and literature. It is mentioned in early literature, both in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales:
“They daucen, and they pleyen at ches and tables.”
and by Shakespeare in Love’s Labour’s Lost.
The word backgammon first appeared in print in 1645. No one knows for sure where the name came from, but most scholars agree that in all likelihood it comes from the Middle English ‘baec’ = back and ‘gamen’ = game.
Backgammon appears consistently in art throughout the second millennium, most famously in “The Garden of Earthly Delights” by Hieronymus Bosch and “The Triumph of Death” by Pieter Brueghel. Quite frequently it appears in tavern scenes and often there is a brawl going on – I wonder why that could be? Here it is in Steen’s “Backgammon Fight”:
The game continued to be played throughout the latter stages of the last millennium but it had constant battles with authorities and the church who wanted to ban it because of the gambling element – not too dissimilar to some areas of the world today, particularly since America brought in its crass and ludicrous Internet gambling laws (surely they are not long for this world??)
Its popularity continued through Victorian times (see the tranquil image below) and it was very popular at country house weekend parties.
However by the early 1920’s the game was losing its appeal. In the Roaring Twenties in New York City the games were just taking too long to play and it was difficult to wager (and therefore win) large amounts of money. What was to be done? We will see in Backgammon history Part 2.